With no rice at home for dinner, I ran to my local Asian grocer to pick up a bag. As I placed the large sack on the checkout counter, I looked up to see a Chinese boy, no older than 12, scanning my rice and telling me how much I owed.
In that moment, I was reminded of what an interesting sight it must have been for my parents’ customers’ back in the day to be greeted by a 9-year-old when they picked up their takeout order.
“Fu Lu Su, how may I help you?” I would say over 40 times a day, seven days a week, as I manned the telephones of my parents’ first small Chinese restaurant. It was one of those hole-in-the wall joints with no decor, unless you counted that golden kitty cat that has their paw raised.
Although I felt robbed of my childhood at the time, I can now say I wouldn’t want it any other way. Some call it child labor. I call it instilling values. Since my parents didn’t speak English fluently, I was in charge of taking orders, waitressing and was the face of the restaurant. My younger brother was a bus boy.
As first generation Americans, it wasn’t uncommon to see us helping our parents in their business ventures. My dad was a hell of a chef, and my mom was great with people. I still don’t know how they managed to do it, but they managed to get their business off the ground and become the go-to place for beef noodle soup. Even now, as an entrepreneur myself, I wonder how they did it with a language barrier and without family.
As it is with most Asian families, school came first. They couldn’t afford pre-school, so we came into kindergarten with dope math skills but not knowing what a vowel was. We could speak English, though — thanks to our awesome Jewish babysitter/grandmother. So, even with a restaurant, the one place we went to twice a week after school was the library. We read through six to eight books each a week. It fed our passion for reading and writing. My favorite book at the time was Matilda, and I still recall reading an excerpt to customers while they waited for their food to be ready. Man, they were kind and patient!
My parents later sold their restaurant and took up menial but respectable work as a cook in the mall and nanny so we could focus on high school. We finally had time to do what other kids do — play a sport, join clubs, volunteer, paint, etc.
My parents couldn’t afford the fancy SAT prep classes but got us a prep book, and we did the best we could. We graduated with relatively low SAT scores, as it goes for many Asians. I got a 1340. My parents thought it was a waste of time to apply for great universities, because we couldn’t afford them and, most importantly , who would accept us with such “low” scores?
I didn’t bother applying to any Ivys, even though I was valedictorian and class president. While filling out my college application, I was ashamed to fill in my parents’ occupation and education level. My mother had only made it to middle school, and my father only finished elementary school. You wouldn’t be able to tell, though — my father is a fierce opponent when it comes to talking global affairs and can find practical use for any piece of garbage. And my mother can open up and fix most small electronic devices.
What I didn’t know at the time was that being a first-generation college student was admirable, and that schools did look at other factors, and financial aid did make it possible to attend those really expensive schools.
So… where did we end up?
My brother graduated from Williams College and now has a well-established and respected career in finance. I ended up graduating from Georgetown University — the only elite school I applied to on a whim based on my brother’s encouragement. I went on to work for some well-known Fortune 100 companies. Now, I help students and their families navigate the often confusing and stressful college admissions process, both as a profession and pro bono, because that is what I find meaningful in my life. I LOVE my life.
To all the other kids who are working hard to help their families — the first generation kids — you’re going to make it! Keep working hard, go to a great school, and you’ll have the opportunity to change your and your family’s future.